A breast cancer diagnosis kicks off a feral midlife crisis for a mild-mannered poetry professor.
Samantha Baxter, 42, has a great husband and daughter in college, a successfully published volume of poetry, a good job teaching in a college town. She also has breast cancer and is scheduled for a double mastectomy in three weeks. Almost immediately, she finds herself in a bathtub caressing the soapy hip of one of her students, a redhead named Leah, a girl about her daughter’s age. “My life dissolved like an old-fashioned slide show catching fire,” she explains. “I just got sick and wanted to burn the world down.” For the nearly 300 pages of DeWoskin’s (Someday We Will Fly, 2019, etc.) impassioned rant of a novel, the inside of Samantha’s head rages like an inferno. After the stress of conducting the poetry workshop in which her new lover is a student, she wants “to hide inside Elizabeth Bishop’s letters, to stop my mind from thinking its own language and instead live in hers,” but instead she pitches herself into the affair with willfully self-destructive and self-indulgent intensity. Her kind husband, her beloved daughter, and her mother, a breast cancer survivor, watch helplessly from the sidelines. “If anyone thinks her tenancy in the land of the sane and healthy was reliable, she should probably think again, because our bodies and minds have a million shards and parts, so many in contradiction with each other that we cannot count on ourselves not to revolt against ourselves.” The narration of this book is so engaging and powerful and the confusion and despair Samantha experiences so visceral and terrifying, reading it feels like being dragged along by the hand by one’s braver best friend through a scary fun house. Surely she can get us out of here, you think, but you can’t be sure.
With X-ray-vision, empathy, and vivacity under fire, DeWoskin once again finds literary gold in painful circumstances.